Ada Mukhina

Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future

© Felix Gaedtke

Ada Mukhina is a nomadic artist, theatre director, curator, performer, and visiting lecturer, originally from St. Petersburg. Currently she is based in Berlin, where she conducts research, with the support of the German Chancellor Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, about the ways political and social issues are represented in theatre. Her own politically engaged documentary and participatory work has been presented internationally. She is a fellow of the Laboratory of Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University. Recently she has been awarded the Berlin Fellowship from the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. During its residency, she started developing her new investigative performance project “How To Sell Yourself to the West?” about the politics inside the art industry.

One year after the pandemic has started, I purchased my own video blogger’s equipment: a ring light and microphone that records my voice directly into the iPhone. After decorating my background with the potted plants and fairy lights, I shot a Youtube-styled video directly in my Berlin bedroom. The voiceover was recorded under the duvet, just like my UK colleague, who works for BBC3 radio, recommended me to do (We all do it like that now, when the studios are closed! — Calum said).

My ironic video work “Nomadic Artist in Recovery” confronted the bittersweet memories of my ex-nomadic life with instructions on “how-to” get used to sedentary habits. It travelled to Luxembourg without me, and it was shown for the whole month of March in the video box (similar to the photo booth’s construction) in the open square of Neimënster. A perfect social distancing installation! One could enter the box, have a seat, close the curtain — but instead of taking a photo, watch an episode of the artistic research project “Are We There Yet?”, curated by Nora Wagner. A new video by a new artist reflecting on different social topics was presented every month and became a part of a bigger programme of activists’ events and experts’ discussions around the question “How to live together in a one planet world?” within Transition Days Luxembourg. Videos can travel when artists can’t!

Actually, I am a theatre-maker. Yet it is already my second video produced in the last year. The first one called “How to Sell Yourself to the West?” replaced the performance, cancelled due to the second lockdown, of the same name at the residency of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. (“Let’s just film your monologue about art prizes and stories of success in the Western art world,” Clara, a curator of the residency suggested to me. “It is a different genre,” I said to myself in panic. “It is not the same to tell the text to the camera when I can’t sense the immediate reaction of the audience.”) After tough negotiations with myself and with the support of film-makers in Germany, a sound designer in the UK and a title animator in Russia, we created a video teaser for my future performance. (What an interesting genre, I thought. Never ever have I created a video about the theatre piece that I have not created yet.)

Yes, a lot of theatre-makers learned new tricks during the pandemic! In the empty auditorium of the Deutsches Theater Berlin, I observed how confidently my colleagues became in streaming their production live from the stage using several cameras (the camera man wearing full-body protective medical clothing running on stage to make close up shots of the actors’ faces, you are my absolute crush.) At the virtual ICAF-festival, the Roadside Theatre, which has been working with diverse communities in the USA for many years, taught me their Story Circle facilitation technique. With its help sad, funny, scary and casual stories from around the world found their way to be told one by one in the virtual circle on Zoom. At the Mitambo festival, hosted by The Zimbabwe Theatre Academy, I passionately discussed online with my colleagues from Egypt, South Africa, and Zimbabwe the intersection of politics and theatre. Digital formats allowed us to connect theatre-makers and audiences in different places without travels involved, to dissolve the usual art hierarchies and centralisation of resources at certain places, and to build bridges between the countries using simultaneous translation. All of that is possible though, if the organisers have the resources to afford it. (Those with means still have more opportunities to showcase their work online, Yvette Hardie, South African cultural manager says.)

Are theatre-makers waiting to get “back to normal”? Not everybody. For example, London’s LIFT-Festival has recently launched an open call for the UK and international artists called “Concept Touring”. It looks for the projects where international collaboration can happen without or with less travel not only because of the pandemic but also considering the ecological trace of international travels. (“My God… these meetings really could all have been e-mails,” the cartoon by Emily Flake from March last year is still relevant. Are we seriously planning to come back to one day trips to the conferences and festivals, where after making presentations of our politically charged work we would run to catch the plane back?).

However, it seems that this mode of conceptual thinking about the pandemic, as an opportunity to reinvent the performing arts industry and to support new formats of engagement and collaboration, is not so widely spread as it could be. Björn Lengers, one of the founders of German theatre of virtual reality “CyberRäuber”, has recently written in his social media, that he fears that the phase of brave innovations and try-outs is going to end as soon as German state theatres will be allowed to come back to their routine: making the production plan years in advance, trying set design models on the stage six months before the premiere, etc. CyberRäuber’s experience and expertise were in high demand during these two years. Nevertheless, it seems that it may not last. (The industry is ready to catch up at first with the production plan of 2020, then 2021, and then 2022 (in 2024), Bjorn warns.) The board of the European Theatre Convention has also stressed that the ‘production jam’ — caused by postponing or cancelling an entire season of performances — is going to affect especially the younger generation because there will be a lack of time and space for work that is still in development “for another 3-5 years”. (Are we ready to welcome the new ‘lost generation’ of creators? What about the new ‘lost generation’ of the audience whose voices, therefore, would be not represented on stages? Or maybe instead we should shut down the work of people who already had the opportunity to say something on stage? Next, please!)

Under these circumstances, it seems like the competition between acclaimed and emerging, a little bit older and much younger, freelance and employed theatre-makers would increase enormously in the field that is already competitive enough. (Performance of applications is happening, my Taiwanese colleague Hao-Yeh told me about the current rising number of requests for funding, residencies and all art-related programmes. What else do we have to do at home?) I personally feel that I often find myself inside Lewis Carroll’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass” world where “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that”. Do we really have to run so fast to be taken into the future? And what kind of future do we shape by running so fast today? Does it really have to be either ‘them’ or ‘us’? Or could we learn together from this pandemic experience and instead of going back go forward?

“Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future” refers to an installation by Russian artists, the Kabakovs (2001), which consists of a train receding into the distance along the railway tracks, on which pictures rejected by the future are scattered.

"Are We There Yet" Ada Mukhina
“Are We There Yet”, a video box installation, curated by Nora Wagner at Neimënster within Transition Days Luxembourg © Luka Heindrichs